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Why Supreme Court’s LGBTQ employment discrimination ruling marks a ‘milestone’

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender identity is illegal. Justice Neil Gorsuch, one of the conservative members of the court, wrote the opinion. The decision represents a milestone for gay rights and comes at a time when minorities across the country are calling for justice. John Yang reports and joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We have three headline-making stories tonight.

    Another killing by a police officer fuels the protests for justice and racial equality. COVID-19 cases are back on the rise, as the United States works on opening up.

    But, first, a historic ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court today outlawing job discrimination the basis of sexual orientation or transgender identity.

    John Yang breaks down what the justices said and what it means.

  • John Yang:

    The court's decision declaring that a six-decade-old civil rights law protects gay and transgendered workers from employment discrimination was stated clearly and simply: "An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what the law forbids."

    Justice Neil Gorsuch, a member of the court's conservative faction, wrote the opinion and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and the four liberal justices in the 6-3 majority. The ruling is a milestone for gay rights and comes at a time when minorities across the country are speaking out for justice.

  • Protesters:

    What do we want?

  • Protesters:

    Justice!

  • Protesters:

    When do we want it?

  • Protesters:

    Now!

  • John Yang:

    As in this joint Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights march yesterday in Los Angeles.

    Before today's decision, it was legal in 28 states to fire someone or refuse them a promotion simply because they were gay or transgender.

    Marcia Coyle is chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal."

  • Marcia Coyle:

    I think it is fair to call it a landmark decision, one, because it took — it has been a long time coming, long-fought by the LGBTQ community.

    We don't know yet all the implications of the decision. And some of the questions that were raised in the opinions, Justice Gorsuch said will be saved for another day. But it clearly is going to make employers across the United States think about their employment policies towards their workers, as well as job applicants.

  • John Yang:

    Gorsuch brushed aside the Trump administration's argument that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not written with gay and transgender people in mind: "The limits of the drafters' imagination supply no reason to ignore the law's demands."

    In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for himself and justice Clarence Thomas, was just as blunt: "There is only one word for what the court has done today: legislation."

    It was the Supreme Court's first significant gay rights decision not written by retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, who stepped down in 2018. Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, clerked for Kennedy, as did the third dissenting justice, Brett Kavanaugh, whom President Trump nominated to replace Kennedy.

    Kavanaugh wrote that the court effectively amended the civil rights law, a power that "belongs to Congress and the president in the legislative process, not to this court."

    Analysts said Gorsuch's opinion offered fresh insight into one of the court's newest justices.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    He sort of telegraphed where he was going during the oral arguments back in October. And, at that point, he talked about the text of Title VII, the words that employers shall not discriminate because of sex. This is perhaps his most in-depth application of textualism and how he reads statutes.

  • John Yang:

    The justices ruled in three cases, two involving men who sued after they said they were fired for being gay.

    Skydiving instructor Don Zarda was fired in 2010 after telling a female client who was about to strapped to him for a jump that he was gay. After Zarda died in a 2014 accident, his case was pressed by his partner, William Moore, and by Melissa Zarda, his younger sister.

  • Melissa Zarda:

    It was a double standard. If he would have casually mentioned his wife while he was on a skydive, nothing would have happened. And he felt like he mentioned his husband and he got fired for it.

    So, not only was it really painful for him, but that he never wanted anybody else to go through anything like this.

  • John Yang:

    The other case involved Gerald Bostock, who was fired from a county job in Georgia after he joined a gay softball team.

  • Gerald Bostock:

    I did nothing wrong. And now I have some validation in that, by the opinion that was given today.

  • John Yang:

    The transgender rights case was brought by Aimee Stephens, who was dismissed from a Michigan funeral home after she told her boss she would begin living as a woman.

    The company said she failed to follow the dress code. Stephens died of kidney failure last month after seeing her case argued before the justices in October. Today, her wife, Donna, issued a two-word statement: "We won."

    Transgender rights will likely remain an issue in federal courts for a little while. On Friday, the Trump administration eliminated protections for transgender patients against discrimination by doctors, hospitals and insurance companies under the Affordable Care Act.

    The lawsuits against that have already been announced — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot to pore through, to dig through today.

    John, so as the court comes toward the — closer to the end of this term, they are already beginning to set the agenda for next term. And what were you able to learn about that today?

  • John Yang:

    Well, we learned three hot-button issues that they will not be taking up, which only means that there were four justices — there were not at least four justices willing to take up those cases, those issues.

    One is gun laws. There were about a dozen gun laws being challenged, and gun rights advocates were hoping this conservative court would take them up. The court turned them all down. That — draw a little bit of a rebuke from Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for himself and Justice Kavanaugh. He said: "Surely, this court would take up restrictions on free speech or," he pointedly added, "restrictions on the right to an abortion, access to an abortion. But today, faced with the petition challenging a restriction on citizens' Second Amendment rights," he wrote, "the court simply looked the other way."

    Another issue that is getting a lot of attention now because of the police shootings and cases of excessive force by police is the doctrine of qualified immunity. This is a decades-old idea that the Supreme Court has said that police officers and other government officials cannot be sued in civil court unless they clearly violate the law or violate some clear constitutional standard.

    By coincidence, because all these cases were sent to the court before, there were about eight cases that were being asked — the court was being asked to reconsider this doctrine. They turned them all down.

    And finally, state sanctuary laws. The court today rejected a bid from the Trump administration to review a California sanctuary state law that forbids state law enforcement officials from providing certain information to federal immigration officials. They said they are not going to review that, so that law stands.

    Judy, the justices usually like to wrap up their business by the end of June. But, because of time they lost because of the pandemic and the early days of the pandemic, they say they may be working into July this year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we will be looking out for that, John Yang, reporting not just on what the justices ruled on, but what they have declined to rule on.

    A lot on your plate. Thank you, John.

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